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Open Spaces

Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 5:55PM   |  2 comments
CommonWealth NAMAC Conference

Fractured sentences, chards of global news images, and rolling sentences project on to square white columns five, six feet high arranged like a forest stripped of branches.

We work our way through the columns, trying to read the words and focus on the content of the images which pepper the columns.

We read while we walk through data flows. We ask others how to interact with these materials and what else we should look at. Far in the back of the installation behind the white columns, we find a computer where you can type in your name to receive a data visualization of your information identity which is also projected onto the white wall in the gallery.

The installation is called Metropath(ologies), a 2008 project by Judith Denath, Alex Dragulescu, Yannick Assoga, and Aaron Zinman from the Sociable Media Group at MIT. It makes physical all that is virtual: personal updates from social media, private information, global news, surveillance, live and recorded sounds and images. It deploys images and words to resurface white columns. Suddenly, I remember that Alex Dragulescu is an Ithaca College alumni. Tom Torello replies "of course!"

We’re in the MIT Museum in Boston at the opening night party of the biannual gathering of the National Alliance of Media Arts and Culture(NAMAC), the professional association for film festivals, cable access groups, media arts centers, youth media, galleries, public and private funders, museums, distributors, community media organizations, digital arts initiatives, artists cooperatives. We’re eating Thai style noodles from little elegant pink take-out containers with chopsticks. At the MIT Museum, even the appetizers at the reception jumpstart you to rethink all of your previous conceptions and rejigger the traditional interface.

Tom Torello, director of marketing for FLEFF, and Ann Michel, our multimedia producer for silent films/live music and for our FLEFF trailers, and I had driven the six hours to Boston across upstate New York country roads and the Massachusetts pike for the CommonWealth NAMAC conference.

Ted Kennedy had died the night before. Flags flew at half mast at the pit stops off the Mass Pike. A large close up of Ted Kennedy spread across WGBH’s large outdoor screen we drove by on our way to the Boston Park Plaza Hotel.

Annie pointed out that the simplicity of one image during the era of multiple windows on computers and endless layering and mixing of images has power and impact—a reminder, she said, that when you put images out there, having a purpose and communicating something of significance to someone still matters.

We were trying to figure out how FLEFF could move into social media and new media in an imaginative way that triggers and opens up new thinking, beyond marketing and building audiences. We were looking for other people who do festivals, build audiences, find new disturbing works, and propel difficult—and pleasurable---conversations in public ways.

In academic jargon, we were on a "benchmarking" mission for best practices for festivals. But we were also looking for new ways to think about what a festival contributes to larger conversations. How we can further our vision to provoking new ideas,  new convenings? How we can create intellectual infrastructures for "open space?" How can we get our heads around new technologies, new practices, and new exhibition strategies so we can make an intervention with some meaning and impact amidst all of this plethora of media?

Eating an index finger sized ice cream cone filled with goat cheese, I asked Jack Walsh, codirector of NAMAC, why nearly 400 public media people had registered for the CommonWealth Conference. " People want to convene, they want to be together and join forces right now,  during this new era," he replied. Lindsay Bosch from Video Data Bank agreed. "This conference looks like it is rallying the wagons, circling the wagons, during a time of great change," she said. "NAMAC is open to making it a conversation."

Howard Weinberg, an independent filmmaker from New York City, said he came to CommonWealth for the "excitement." Gretjen Clausing, executive director of the new public access station in Philadelphia (and a FLEFF consultant), observed that despite computers, people "still want to collaborate and have difficult conversations that are cross racial, cross class, and cross alliances." And Mary Kerr, executive director of International Film Seminars, home of the legendary Robert Flaherty Film Seminar(full disclosure: I'm on the board of trustees), told me she came because she has questions about running a non-profit, the role of the board, and other administrative visioning issues in this new uncertain environment.

It’s an exciting yet precipitous time. The tectonic plates of new technologies, changing public policies, economic collapse, a new president, and enormous challenges in figuring out strategies in a multiplatformed environment are crashing together and disturbing the geographies of public media. Metropath(ologies) condensed all that is churning up in the media landscape at the moment: a dialectic between a PATH through it, and a PATHOLOGY about it. Fascination and panic.  Hope and despair.  Utopia and problems.

The questions are complex. The technologies are confusing. The survival strategies are unclear. New forms of exhibition are proliferating. Our horizons are recalibrating. Our old ways of thinking about public media are unhinged.

CommonWealth functioned like a primer on telecommunications policy challenges like net neutrality, broadband and arts stimulus while it also provided navigational systems and  mappings of digital media, social media, and new ways to think about outcomes in media arts funding.

More reports from the front of CommonWealth in my next post.

Stay tuned. And join the conversation—there’s a lot to discuss and share!  What do you think are the challenges to public media in this new era?


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